Science deconstructs humor: What makes some things funny? (2022)

Think of the most hilarious video you’ve ever seen on the internet. Why is it so funny?

As a researcher who investigates some of the potential side effects of humor, I spend a fair bit of time verifying the funniness of the jokes, photos and videos we present to participants in our studies. Quantifying the perception of humor is paramount in ensuring our findings are valid and reliable. We often rely on pretesting – that is, trying out jokes and other potential stimuli on different samples of people – to give us a sense of whether they might work in our studies.

To make predictions on how our funny materials will be perceived by study subjects, we also turn to a growing body of humor theories that speculate on why and when certain situations are considered funny. From ancient Greece to today, many thinkers from around the world have yearned to understand what makes us laugh. Whether their reasons for studying humor were strategic (like some of Plato’s thoughts on using humor to manipulate people’s political views) or simply inquisitive, their insights have been crucial to the development of humor research today.

Take the following video as an example of a funny stimulus one might use in humor research:

(Video) Peter McGraw, Humor Speaker, The Science of Humor

To summarize: A man and his female companion are enjoying a pleasant day observing a moose in one of Sweden’s forests. The woman makes a sudden movement, causing the moose to charge the couple. The man stands his ground, causing the moose to stop in his tracks. After a few feints with a large stick and several caveman-ish grunts by the man, the defeated moose retreats while the man proclaims his victory (with more grunting).

The clip has been viewed on YouTube almost three million times, and the comments make it clear that many folks who watch it are LOLing. But why is this funny?

Superiority theory: Dumb moose

It is the oldest of all humor theories: Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato alluded to the idea behind the superiority theory thousands of years ago. It suggests that all humor is derived from the misfortunes of others – and therefore, our own relative superiority. Thomas Hobbes also alluded to this theory in his book “Leviathan,” suggesting that humor results in any situation where there’s a sudden realization of how much better we are than our direct competition.

Taking this theory into consideration, it seems like the retreating moose is the butt of the joke in this scenario. Charles Gruner, the late expert on superiority theory, suggest that all humor is derived from competition. In this case, the moose lost that competition.

Relief theory: Nobody died

The relief theory of humor stems from Sigmund Freud’s assertion that laughter lets us relieve tension and release “psychic energy.” In other words, Freud and other relief theorists believe that some buildup of tension is inherent to all humorous scenarios and the perception of humor is directly related to the release of that tension.

(Video) Jerry Seinfeld Interview: How to Write a Joke | The New York Times

Freud used this idea to explain our fascination with taboo topics and why we might find it humorous to acknowledge them. For example, my own line of research deals with humor in interracial interactions and how it can be used to facilitate these commonly tense situations. Many comedians have tackled this topic as well, focusing on how language is used in interracial settings and using it as an example of how relief can be funny.

Interestingly, this theory has served as the rationale behind many studies documenting the psychological and physiological benefits of laughter. In both cases, the relief of tension (physiological tension, in the case of laughing) can lead to positive health outcomes overall, including decreased stress, anxiety and even physical pain.

In the case of our moose video: Once the moose charges, the tension builds as the man and the animal face off for an extended period of time. The tension is released when the moose gives up his ground, lowers his ears and eventually scurries away. The video would probably be far less humorous if the tension had been resolved with violence – for instance, the moose trampling the man, or alternatively ending up with a stick in its eye.

Incongruity theory: It’s unexpected

The incongruity theory of humor suggests that we find fundamentally incompatible concepts or unexpected resolutions funny. Basically, we find humor in the incongruity between our expectations and reality.

Resolving incongruity can contribute to the perception of humor as well. This concept is known as as the “incongruity-resolution” theory, and primarily refers to written jokes. When identifying what makes a humorous situation funny, this theory can be applied broadly; it can account for the laughs found in many different juxtaposed concepts.

(Video) man vs moose in sweden (the original)

Take the following one-liners as examples:

“I have an Epi-Pen. My friend gave it to me as he was dying. It seemed very important to him that I have it.”

“Remains to be seen if glass coffins become popular.”

The humor in both of these examples relies on incongruous interpretations: In the first, a person has clearly misinterpreted his friend’s dying wish. In the second, the phrase “remains to be seen” is a play on words that takes on two very different meanings depending on how you read the joke.

In the case of our moose video, the incongruity results from the false expectation that the interaction between man and moose would result in some sort of violence. When we see our expectations foiled, it results in the perception of humor.

Benign violations theory: It’s bad, but harmless

Incongruity is also a fundamental part of the benign violations theory of humor (BVT), one of the most recently developed explanations. Derived from the linguist Thomas Veatch’s “violation theory,” which describes various ways for incongruity to be funny, BVT attempts to create one global theory to unify all previous theories of humor and account for issues with each.

(Video) PK | Scene Breakdown - Analysis of the train station sequence | Incongruity Theory in Popular Media

Broadly, benign violations theory asserts that all humor derives from three necessary conditions:

  1. The presence of some sort of norm violation, be it a moral norm violation (robbing a retirement home), social norm violation (breaking up with a long-term boyfriend via text message) or physical norm violation (purposefully sneezing directly on a child).

  2. A “benign” or “safe” context in which the violation takes place (this can take many forms).

  3. The interpretation of the first two points simultaneously. In other words, one must view, read or otherwise interpret a violation as relatively harmless.

Thus far, researchers studying BVT have demonstrated a few different scenarios in which the perception of a benign violation could take place – for example, when there is weak commitment to the norm being violated.

Take the example of a church raffling off a Hummer SUV. They found this scenario is much less funny to churchgoers (with their strong commitment to the norm that the church is sacred and embodies values of humility and stewardship) than it is to non-churchgoers (with relatively weak norm commitment about the church). While both groups found the concept of the church’s choice of fundraiser disgusting, only the non-churchgoers simultaneously appraised the situation as also amusing. Hence, a benign violation is born.

(Video) The Philosophy of Comedy: comedic techniques

In the case of our moose video, the violation is clear; there’s a moose about to charge two people, and we’re not sure what exactly is about to go down. The benign part of the situation could be credited to a number of different sources, but it’s likely due to the fact that we’re psychologically (and physically, and temporally) distant from the individuals in the video. They’re far away in Sweden, and we’re comfortably watching their dilemma on a screen.

Homing in on funny

At one point or another, we’ve all wondered why some phrase or occurrence has caused us to erupt with laughter. In many ways, this type of inquiry is what drove me to research the limits and consequences of humor in the first place. People are unique and often find different things amusing. In order to examine the effects of humor, it is our job as researchers to try to select and craft the stimuli we present to affect the widest range of people. The outcomes of good science stem from both the validity and reliability of our stimuli, which is why it’s important to think critically about the reasons why we’re laughing.

The application of this still-growing body of humor research and theory is seen everywhere, influencing everything from political speeches to advertising campaigns. And while “laughter is the best medicine” may be an overstatement (penicillin is probably better, for one), psychologists and medical professionals have started to lend credence to the idea that humor and laughter might have some positive effects for health and happiness. These applications underscore the importance of developing the best understanding of humor we can.

FAQs

What is a reason to laugh? ›

Laughter can increase your oxygen intake, which can in turn stimulate your heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughing further releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals our bodies produce to make us feel happy and even relieve pain or stress.

Is an amusing or funny quality to something? ›

Definition of humor

1a : that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous : a funny or amusing quality Try to appreciate the humor of the situation.

How do I get more laugh? ›

Even if your jokes seem silly, the key thing is that they make you laugh. Laugh with others using humour. Whether in person or virtually, share jokes or funny videos that you think others will enjoy – and perhaps you'll receive some in return. You can even agree to exchange original jokes for a shared laugh.

How do dogs laugh? ›

Dogs do laugh; however, it is not the same way humans do. In humans, laughter is composed of rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory, and involuntary actions. The sound can be any variation of “ha-ha” or “ho-ho.” Dogs produce a similar sound through forceful panting—a “hhuh-hhah” variation.

Do deaf people laugh? ›

In an examination of other variables, the social dynamics of deaf and hearing people were similar, with “speakers” (those signing) laughing more than their audiences and females laughing more than males. Laughter is one of our species' most prominent and characteristic vocalizations (Provine, 2000).

What is the meaning of it's funny? ›

funny: amusing, entertaining; strange, peculiar, bizarre. adjective. It's funny how people can change.

Would you humor me meaning? ›

“Humor me” is used when asking someone to play along or hear them out. It is meant to request that the other party allow them to indulge in sharing their idea or story. Some people feel that when you choose to humor someone, you placate them without considering your own opinions.

What are humors in biology? ›

noun, plural: humors. (physiology) A fluid or a semifluid of an animal body, particularly those located within the eyeball (i.e. aqueous humor and vitreous humor) Supplement. The historical usage of the term humor refers to the bodily fluid of an animal.

How do you talk laugh? ›

How to Pronounce LAUGH & LOVE - American English Pronunciation ...

How do you text laugh? ›

There are many ways of expressing laughter via text in English-speaking countries like LOL (laugh out loud), LMAO (laughing my apples off), ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing), teehee (hehe), and so on.

How do you laugh in Japanese? ›

How to laugh in Japanese! - Japanese Slang Lesson - YouTube

Why do dogs lick you? ›

Licking is a natural and instinctive behaviour to dogs. For them it's a way of grooming, bonding, and expressing themselves. Your dog may lick you to say they love you, to get your attention, to help soothe themselves if they're stressed, to show empathy or because you taste good to them!

Why do dogs smile with teeth? ›

This is referred to as a submissive grin or a smile. It is usually accompanied by non-threatening body language such as lip licking, an averted gaze, a relaxed body posture, and ears sitting flatter against the head. The submissive grin is a type of appeasement gesture intended to calm down a situation.

Why do dogs smile at you? ›

Most experts agree dogs smile in response to the human smile. Dogs seem to smile more when relaxing, playing, feeling content or greeting someone they know. Dogs don't smile in response to a joke, but they may smile in response to you. Usually, when a dog smiles it is known as a submissive grin.

Can you be deaf but still talk? ›

MYTH: All deaf people are mute. FACT: Some deaf people speak very well and clearly; others do not because their hearing loss prevented them from learning spoken language. Deafness usually has little effect on the vocal chords, and very few deaf people are truly mute.

Why do people say achoo when they sneeze? ›

Where did achoo come from? This instance of onomatopoeia imitates the sound of sneezing. The first syllable mimics the quick intake of breath, while the second corresponds with the tone of the convulsive expulsion of air through the nose and mouth.

Do deaf people sneeze silently? ›

For deaf people, "a sneeze is what it should be... something that just happens", says Swinbourne in his article. He even attempts to describe what an achoo-free deaf sneeze sounds like: "[There is] a heavy breath as the deep pre-sneeze breath is taken, then a sharper, faster sound of air being released."

When did Funnily become a word? ›

Meaning "strange, odd, causing perplexity" is by 1806, said to be originally U.S. Southern (marked as colloquial in Century Dictionary).

Which of the following means strange and funny? ›

Answer: absurd means strange and funny.

What is bite me means? ›

(idiomatic, slang, offensive) An expression of discontent or aggravation to another party. quotations ▼ (idiomatic, slang) A taunting phrase, essentially meaning "I don't care".

What's another word for Humouring? ›

In this page you can discover 24 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for humoring, like: indulging, pleasing, indulgence, pampering, temporizing, gratifying, appeasing, mollycoddling, obliging, spoiling and softening.

What is the meaning of Riddle me this? ›

In colloquial speech and writing, riddle me this is sometimes used rhetorically to question conventional wisdom, point to a perceived contradiction or hypocrisy, or make wry observations.

What did the 4 humors do? ›

According to humoralism, four bodily fluids—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—determined a person's temperament and an imbalance led to certain sicknesses dependent upon which humors were in excess or deficit. The humors were connected to celestial bodies, seasons, body parts, and stages of life.

What are the 4 bodily humors? ›

The theory was that a mystical equilibrium between several bodily fluids (humours) maintained human life. Excess blood would disturb that balance and result in illness. The four humours were: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.

Are the four humors still used today? ›

Imbalances between these humours were thought to be responsible for different moods and character traits – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic are all terms still in use today.

How do you speak crying? ›

How To Pronounce Cried - Pronunciation Academy - YouTube

How do the British say water? ›

How to Pronounce "Water" in British English and American English

Is T silent in laughter? ›

Answer: 'G' is the silent letter in a laugh. Explanation: Laughing means to make a chuckling or a roaring sound.

What does LOL mean from a guy? ›

Lol stands for laugh out loud or laughing out loud.

What replaced LOL? ›

The classic Internet slang term, which stands for "laugh out loud," has been replaced by "haha," laughing emojis, and "hehe" as popular ways to indicate something is funny online.

What can I say instead of LMAO? ›

Acronyms to Express Laughter Online
  • LOL (laughing out loud)
  • LOLZ (more than one laugh)
  • ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing)
  • LQTM (laughing quietly to myself)
  • LSMH (laughing & shaking my head)
  • LMHO (laughing my head off)
  • HAHA (this one goes without saying)
18 Apr 2022

Why do Japanese say WWWW? ›

What does wwww mean? Wwww is the Japanese equivalent of the English hahahaha, used to express laughter online and in text message. The more w's, the more enthusiastic the laughter. Like haha, wwww can be shortened to w(ww) and can have an ironic tone.

How do you say Mom in anime? ›

The standard way to address one's mother is with 'okaa-san' (お母さん) or some variation thereof. To refer to one's own mother, one is likely to use haha (母) to people outside the family. A member of a noble household (especially in a samurai anime!)

How do you laugh in Russian? ›

How to Laugh in a Foreign Language
  1. 'MDR' – French.
  2. 'www' – Japanese.
  3. '555' – Thai.
  4. 'kkk' – Korean.
  5. 'хаха' – Russian.
  6. 'jaja' – Spanish.
  7. 'xaxa' – Greek.
  8. '哈哈' – Chinese.
25 Apr 2021

What are two reasons to keep laughing? ›

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. Activate and relieve your stress response.

Why tickles make you laugh? ›

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists believe that we laugh when we are tickled because the part of the brain that tells us to laugh when we experience a light touch, the hypothalamus, is also the same part that tells us to expect a painful sensation.

Why do you think laughter is the best medicine? ›

Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

Do animals laugh? ›

Dozens Of Animals Laugh Too, Study Shows A new study in the journal Bioacoustics found that 65 different species of animals have their own form of laughter. Study co-author Sasha Winkler describes the sounds animals make during play.

Which type of energy is created by laughter? ›

A general theory that explains laughter is called the relief theory. Sigmund Freud summarized it in his theory that laughter releases tension and "psychic energy".

Who said laughter is the best medicine? ›

The saying “laughter is the best medicine” is believed to have originated — albeit now in a snappier form —from Proverbs 17.22 of the King James Bible.

Why does pain make me laugh? ›

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is a condition that's characterized by episodes of sudden uncontrollable and inappropriate laughing or crying. Pseudobulbar affect typically occurs in people with certain neurological conditions or injuries, which might affect the way the brain controls emotion.

Why do people hate being tickled? ›

People may hate being tickled due to the loss of control over their bodies, experts say. Tickling can overwhelm the nervous system, causing actual, if temporary, paralysis, Alan Fridlund, Ph. D., associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, told Vice.

Are dogs ticklish? ›

Yes, dogs can definitely be ticklish. The tickle response, also called gargalesis, is recorded in humans and other animals like primates and rats and it seems that dogs might also have this reaction to light touches and tickling.

Why do I start laughing when I'm tired? ›

Catecholamines are hormones our bodies make when we're in fight-or-flight mode to help us muddle through stress. They include dopamine and cortisol. And we may feel loopy and laughy as a result of our bodies trying to give us a boost.

What are the benefits of smiling and laughing? ›

Five Health Benefits of Smiling and Laughing
  • Decrease Stress. Laughter has several health benefits including lowering stress hormones and reducing physical tension throughout your body. ...
  • Strengthen Immune System. ...
  • Improve Mood. ...
  • Reduce Pain. ...
  • Increase Positivity.
28 Sept 2020

Do you think laughter is the purest expression of joy Why? ›

Laughter is the ability to express one's internal emotions with an external expression. Laughter is the purest form of communication. It expresses our real desires and intent.
...
Psychological – Cognitive Benefits of Laughter.
Psychological-Cognitive Health Benefits
Counteract AnxietyRelieves Stress
7 more rows
2 Sept 2011

What is the saying laughter is good for the soul? ›

Laughter is good for the soul because it brings people together, releases tension in the environment and relaxes your nerves making it both beneficial for emotional as well as physical well-being. Laughter is the best way to improve your mood and there is no better alter than a laugh to bring balance to your life.

Which animal has no blood? ›

Flatworms, nematodes, and cnidarians (jellyfish, sea anemones, and corals) do not have a circulatory system and thus do not have blood. Their body cavity has no lining or fluid within it. They obtain nutrients and oxygen directly from the water that they live .

What animal has 8 hearts? ›

The animal with eight hearts is Barosaurus.

Having eight hearts means that a lot of pressure is required for blood circulation in the body.

What animal has green blood? ›

BATON ROUGE – Green blood is one of the most unusual characteristics in the animal kingdom, but it's the hallmark of a group of lizards in New Guinea. Prasinohaema are green-blooded skinks, or a type of lizard.

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